With the exception of one small (err, actually kind of major) thing (see also: Phillips Exeter Faculty Lie to Sexual Assault Victim, Tell Her She Wasn't Assaulted), I totally love my high school. I mean, come on! Our classes took place around a Harkness table -- we constantly debated, discussed, and learned from each other. It was a totally epic learning experience.
But that didn't stop one of the most ridiculous Facebook conversations ever from happening on the alumni page this week.
Basically, people are outraged because an Exeter student -- some teenage girl none of us even knows -- wears a $12,500, diamond-encrusted Rolex. (The watch was stolen by a heroin addict, then recovered and returned.)
"So there's a part of me that feels like you're missing the "goodness and knowledge" lesson if you don't realize that some of your classmates are scholarship students and that wearing a $12,500 diamond encrusted watch to high school is both tacky and insensitive," one alum wrote.
Another alum wrote:
"In rural Thailand, as well as most of the country, public and private school children all wear uniforms, explicitly to 'level the playing field.' It removes at least a part of the inevitable distraction of who has what designer whatever."
Still another added:
"My daughter attends an artsy private high school in Los Angeles, one where multiple celebrity children attend. The admin has been very careful to restrict clothing and accessories to conform to certain guidelines, so as to avoid exactly the kind of issues a fifteen year old wearing a 12k watch might create."
But my question is, who are these students whose sense of self-worth is diminished by other people's watches -- and what's wrong with their parents?
I can't think of a single time in my life where I would have:
a) Noticed what kind of watch a peer was wearing, or
Maybe it's because of my "mom privilege." From an early age, my mom imparted solid values on me. My self-worth has never come from the clothes, shoes and accessories I was wearing. I mean, sure! It feels good to look nice. (On a side note: some so-called "experts" are saying not to call your daughter beautiful. Here's why they're completely wrong.)
But what feels even better is my achievements, awards, contributions, and ideas. You know -- the person I am on the inside?
Like, okay. Here's a story:
One time, I was playing in this middle school basketball tournament. My team was the underdog, but I didn't let that diminish the effort I put in. I hit the floor chasing loose balls. I hustled and stayed aggressive the entire game, no matter what the score. I boxed out my man and made sharp cuts until I was embarrassingly red in the face...
And we still lost.
After the game, coach took us into an empty classroom, sat us down, and wrote a single word on the board: "Heart."
He told us the importance of playing with heart -- how that mattered more than anything else. And then he said, "But, on this team, there's another way to say 'heart.'"
Then he turned to the chalkboard, crossed off "Heart," and replaced it with something else:
You think that what someone else has on their wrist could, in any way, have diminished that moment or what I took away from it? The validation, acknowledgement, and encouragement I felt, and what it said about me as a person?
And I'm not the only one. One alum wrote:
"I was a scholarship kid. One of my best friends Prep year was one of the wealthiest people in the world. He didn't talk about his money, and I didn't talk about my lack of it, and we did just fine."
"People can wear whatever they want. I know people who wear $30 watches and people who wear $30K watches.. The only thing that matters to me is the character of that person. I don't judge them based on their attire."
And still another:
"Not following why wearing an expensive watch equates to a lack of goodness or knowledge. Surely one can be good even while wearing an expensive watch. Let's not pass judgment on the victim here, especially when we know nothing about her."
Now, we're all alumni. Maybe things have changed. After all, today's youth are more fragile and sensitive than any other generation. There's an incredible new book out on this -- for those who haven't, check out Dr. Jean Twenge's iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
In addition to decreased resilience and increased anxiety, today's obsession with "identity" politics contributes to feelings of victimhood (rather than empowerment). Schools used to encourage children to think independently and fill their minds with facts and ideas. Now... we encourage them to think about themselves. Their "specialness" and "uniqueness." Their "identity."
Maybe if I showed up at Exeter -- a prestigious boarding school whose student body includes senators' children and offspring of the Fortune 500 -- obsessed with my "identity" as a white, Christian farm girl from Iowa... a watch on the wrist of someone I may or may not know could have hurt my feelings.
Instead, I showed up as a girl with Heart. With determination. Eager to be independent and chase bigger challenges than I'd had at home. Someone who cared more about inner characteristics than outer labels. I even made it a point not to wear "cool" or "sexy" clothes, because I wanted to be respected and loved for who I was, and not what I wore or looked like.
I'll never stop feeling grateful that I grew up before identity politics and the participation trophy movement... because who knows if I would have developed my strength and confidence otherwise?
It would be funny, if it weren't so sad, that the modern effort to "teach" self-esteem in schools has kind of resulted in worse self-esteem (but more narcissism) than ever.
But you know what else will backfire big time? Shaming students who wear expensive clothes and/or making rules against it. This doesn't build up poor and middle-class students. It infantilizes them! It reinforces the very message it's trying to subvert.
Humans are highly social learners. Rules like this teach low-income students that they SHOULD feel bad when they see expensive watches, instead of teaching them that expensive watches don't matter.
It teaches them that the clothing of people they may or may not even know can and SHOULD hurt them and make them question their belonging.
It teaches bad self-esteem and helplessness.
Combine this with speech codes and an obsession with "cultural sensitivity"... and you've got a very scared and underprepared generation of kids.
The only issue that should arise from a $12k watch is a security issue. But let's not be hypocritical in our attitudes about victim-blaming -- because what message does that send to girls and young women? "If you get robbed while wearing a $12,000 watch, it's your fault." "If you get sexually assaulted while wearing a miniskirt, it's....?"
Luckily, self-reliance and resilience are skills. They can be learned and taught. A few recommendations I'll throw out there include:
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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